The divorce system in England and Wales is changing from Wednesday (6 April) as a new no-fault divorce law comes into effect.
The change means couples will be able to split without having to say one person was in the wrong.
It replaces the current structure where one partner is forced to blame the other for the breakdown of the marriage, or wait up to five years before being able to start the legal process of splitting.
It has been described as the biggest reform of divorce laws for 50 years, with campaigners heralding it a “hallelujah moment” for couples wanting to split amicably.
Here’s everything you need to know about the new divorce law changes in England and Wales.
How is the divorce law changing?
No-fault divorce will come into effect in England and Wales on Wednesday 6 April, with 31 March marking the last day couples were able to file for divorce under the old system according to HM Courts & Tribunals Service.
Previously, couples hoping to divorce would need to give one of five reasons as to why their marriage has broken down including:
- Unreasonable behaviour
- Desertion for at least two years
- Separation for at least two years, with the consent of both parties
- Separation for at least five years even if one party disagrees there should be a divorce
Instead of having to give one of these five reasons for your marriage breaking down, you will need to give ‘notice’ that the relationship is over which will start a ’20-week reflection period’.
From 6 April the new legislation will:
- replace the ‘five facts’ with a new requirement to provide a statement of irretrievable breakdown
- remove the possibility of contesting the divorce
- introduce an option for a joint application
- make sure language is in plain English, for example, changing ‘decree nisi’ to conditional order and ‘decree absolute’ to final order
Under the new “no-fault” rules, couples will no longer have to provide grounds for their divorce or civil partnership dissolution. From Wednesday, they will only need to state that their relationship has “irretrievably” broken down.
“No-fault” divorce comes as part of the changes in the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act which aims to remove the element of blame from split-ups. In Scotland, no-fault divorces have been used since 2006.
Here is a summary of the key changes coming into force from 6 April.
Couples can make a joint application for divorce
Divorce proceedings no longer have to be initiated by one partner alone. Instead, a couple can make a joint application.
Minimum of 20 weeks cooling off period
There will be a minimum allowable period of 20 weeks between the initial application and the conditional order - and another six weeks between the conditional and final orders.
That means that even the smoothest divorce will take at least six months or more to complete, compared to three to four months under the old process.
Divorce can be granted without blame
The current list of five reasons for divorce will be replaced by a single mechanism.
Now all that’s required is for at least one spouse to provide a legal statement to say the marriage has broken down. This statement counts as conclusive evidence and cannot be contested.
Removal of the ability to contest a divorce
Under the new no fault divorce law, the ability to contest a divorce will be removed.
Why is the change important?
The new no-fault divorce law gives people the ability to petition for divorce even if one party doesn’t want it, helping to save money and time for couples.
The change means that the law will trust the couples to decide if their marriage is over - involving less judicial discretion.
Campaigners say it will help couples move forward and enable them to secure the best outcome for their family without unnecessary conflict.
Stuart Ruff, partner at the south London and Kent law firm Thackray Williams, said: "This is the legal watershed that couples have been desperately waiting for.
"It is truly a hallelujah moment and will save couples untold pain of having to blame somebody for a divorce."
The online divorce service Amicable said the move signals a "huge narrative shift to separation" and will go some way to healing the "blame-laden" system. However, there are concerns that the new fairer system could lead to an increase in divorce rates.
Elspeth Kinder, partner and head of family law at JMW Solicitors, said there is likely to be a temporary spike in applications because some couples have delayed acting until the rules change.
She said couples applying for divorce together "may well become the standard process as lawyers seek to minimise conflict" and the new legislation will "massively speed up" the process for couples.
The National Family Mediation charity said it is expecting a "flood of enquiries" and its busiest month ever.
Meanwhile experts warn the move could bring some unintended consequences.
Sarah Anticoni, partner at international law firm Charles Russell Speechlys, warned that the minimum 20-week wait "will irritate many".
She said: "Divorce lawyers have rightly spent years lobbying for the end of the often-toxic ‘blame game’.
"However, if couples no longer articulate the demise of their marriage in this way, it is unclear where the feelings of loss, grief and anger will manifest themselves. This may need to be addressed through other services, including counselling."